I'm headed to Bangkok to see a film, in fact, two. One is a soft–budget American mini-epic about the churlish times just before the Vietnam War exploded in the '60s. The other is a Thai historic epic (which means it will take another two years to finish and probably cause another upheaval in the government). Both are pre-distribution screenings, both looking for some mid-exhaustion encouragement and for more financing.
The last time I saw a film in Bangkok was in a modern Cineplex with a huge screen, a fully-enhanced sound system, and comfortable seats—not unlike the best in the U.S. or the UK or anywhere else where there is substantial investment in modern movie house facilities. The house was packed. About 15 minutes into the film, I began to hear quiet, little beeps coming from different directions in the theatre. And quiet, little flashes. Then it increased, and all around me I could hear whispering and quiet, little giggles. When I finally pulled my head out of the screen, I realized that I was watching cell phones (mobiles) actively connecting people throughout the audience. Hello? They were calling each other and seemingly talking about the movie, at least that's what the people to my side and in front and behind were doing. Primarily teenagers but not limited to that thumb-driven age group. Though to my sensibility it was rather annoying, it wasn't totally disruptive. The Thais are outwardly a polite and quiet people (emphasis on outwardly), so the noise level was at a minimum, if you can say that about hundreds of mobile phones twitching and twinking.
It was an audience-participation experience, not unlike similar audience behavior in many other countries. Try seeing a film in China or Israel or Argentina or, ouff, Russia. Audiences there, with or without phones, truly "get into it!" They talk and shout to each other, to the characters in the movie-story, to the actors. If it weren't for the distance and limited access of the screen, some of them would jump right in and try to join the action. In fact, I saw that happen in an Italian movie house in Milano─and it wasn't just someone "showing off, it was a woman who was so moved by the story that she found a way to get there to talk to one of the characters in an effort to convince him not to divorce his movie wife. She failed.
American audiences are apparently more passive (emphasis on apparently), so this type of experience isn't commonplace, except at screenings of Black movies for African-American audiences, and Latin movies, and other ethnic-oriented screenings. The same is true in the UK. Years ago, I saw the world premiere of Gandhi at a theatre in the Brighton Mews. Sir Richard was there along with many other celebritianos. During the entire screening, the only extraneous sounds I heard came from the tea-sellers, whispering to each other as they waited for the interval. I wondered: was the audience awake, were they alive, were they lost without subtitles?
For sure, going to the movies, almost anywhere, is wrapped in the anxious influence of television, video, email and text messaging—short spans of attention, multi-tasking with multi-pees and multi-snacks and multi-chit-chatting. Now with DVD and movies-on-demand, it's a matter of stand-up, sit-down, run around, throw it away, or look at it a dozen times and then throw it away. The great philosophical search of our time is not to achieve oneness with the universe, it is to find out how to sit still for 20 minutes. A two-hour movie? Not on the planet Earth!
My good friend, the filmmaker, Joe De Francesco, is an ardent believer in the movie theatre as the only venue for experiencing a movie. He resisted video cassettes and cable television for a long time. As embarrassing as it might have been among his colleagues, he adamantly insisted on absorbing a movie where it belonged: on the big screen. He wanted the quality of the image, the sound and detachment of a darkened theatre. He also preferred a good French wine over a California quickie. Eventually, the pressures of family and industry forced a compromise in that resistance, but not in his belief. Happily, he still drinks good French wine.
He was right. A movie should be seen as it was intended to be seen and as the dominant captor of all the senses in a place, a temple, dedicated to revealing its beauty. But if you're as misanthropic, rather, disanthropic, as I am, you find yourself, reluctantly and often remorsefully, dragging yourself to a movie house, less and less. You find yourself miserly hoarding your own time to recreate a movie-going experience, alone, in your own darkened room with a big tube and a big sound system... and often failing to do so, but getting closer every night. Unless… you're one of the fortunate few who have their own screening rooms, their own personal movie theatres, which is the best of both worlds, mobile phones be damned!
Live theatre used to be a major means of mass communication, and still is in some remote places in the world. No more. Other than its entertainment and educational values, the only treasure that live theatre retains is the real-time story-telling, the acting in real-time. It is a powerful treasure and one that film cannot give. The closest I ever came to that real-time/live-theatre gift when going to the movies was on a warm, Tuscan night. I call it my "Cinema Paradiso" experience. I sat with a couple hundred smoking, drinking Italians watching a movie outdoors, projected on the side of a whitewashed church. Of all things, it was a Turkish film with subtitles about immigrant fishermen. With all of the laughter, cheers, boos, singing, and, yes, chit-chat, rather than a disturbing distraction, it all became one engaging, live experience.
It is the memory of that night that spurs me to search for the 'oneness' of that experience. I want to see a finished movie… shown at the location where it was shot… surrounded by the characters on the screen and the actors who portrayed them and the director and crew, all sitting and watching with me. I want to see that film come to life in real time on the faces of the people around me. That's what I call: going to the movies. Maybe this time… in Bangkok.